Weaving a stanza

Thoreau likens a fisherman's weaving of a creel to creating a poem about the spring. He shows great respect for skills and care in material things and processes. 'He was meditating a small poem in his way.  It was equal to a successful stanza whose subject was...

Five for the price of one

Thoreau packs in a rich deck of similes and metaphors in this short description of the shrub oak.  For the image, I looked for something that conveyed 'clean as the atmosphere', but I also like 'hardy as virtue' and the idea of being as 'natural and sound as a...

As moderate as …

A measured, precise, unfussy speaker, this farmer.  I also liked the idea of his not melting the snow where he treads, as if he is himself made of this clean, cold, moderate element. 'The farmer spoke to me, I can swear, clean, cold, moderate as the snow. He does not...

As insensible as …

Of course, we can't know (yet) how insensible a fungus is, but until we learn otherwise, what a memorable way to convey a loss of wonder.  Apologies to all wondering fungi. And may wonder never become extinct in you, whether or not you resemble fungus. 'Will wonder...

Like the lowing of a cow

Nature's hoarse summer voice?  Wind shuffling leaves and crickets rubbing hands together?  I like the metaphor, but nevertheless can't quite capture what it is. 'Nature has found her hoarse summer voice again, like the lowing of a cow let out to pasture.'  20 May 1856...

Like opening tombs

Thoreau voices strong opinions and they can be refreshingly blunt and funny, though it isn't always clear that he means them to be humorous.  It seems he didn't draw too much inspiration from New England journals. 'Most New England biographies and journals – John...

Someday the history of metaphor will be written and we shall at last grasp all the truths and misconceptions in which this intensely speculative subject abounds.  

Source: Jorge Luis Borges, On Writing, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2010, p. 45

Metaphors and similes are an imaginative galaxy which greater minds than mine have explored. That doesn’t stop me gathering dazzling and original examples to enrich the common stock and enliven human exchange, expanding the choice of vigorous and beautiful ways to sharpen how we think, read, write and speak.

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A voice like …

I don't think I've ever heard such a voice, unless it's one or two smokers I know after a bad winter bronchitis. '... a voice like a nut-meg grater.'   4 May 1856 Source: Henry David Thoreau, The Journal 1837-1861, Damion Searls (ed.), preface by John R. Stilgoe (New...

Contorted as …

Never thought of caterpillars as contorted, but I like the simile.  Hope you do too, and the image I used. As contorted a caterpillar as I could find and what a lurid green! '... contorted like caterpillars.'  22 April 1855 Source: Henry David Thoreau, The Journal...

Ebbs and flows of the soul

A journal as a beach gathering shells, seaweed and pearls washed up by the soul in the course of a day. 'Let the daily tide leave some deposit on these pages, as it leaves sand and shells on the shore. So much increase of terra firma. This may be a calendar of the...

All parts are one

A lovely comment on interconnectedness.  I had fun choosing the image and hope you like its gentle irreverence. 'All parts of nature belong to one head, as the curls of a maiden’s hair.  How beautifully flow the seasons as one year, and all streams as one ocean!' ...

Like sunshine over a field

I wish you countless such waves. 'A wave of happiness flows over us like sunshine over a field.'  7 August 1840 Source: Henry David Thoreau, The Journal 1837-1861, Damion Searls (ed.), preface by John R. Stilgoe (New York: New York Review Books, 2009), p. 11 Photo...

Waking like a bullet

While I don't relish bullets striking things, I like the occasional quickness of a sleep-satiated body waking up, alert to the day. 'When you have been deprived of your usual quantity of sleep for several nights, you sleep much more soundly for it, and wake up...

Floating on your buoyant prejudices

As I read the abridged version of Thoreau's journals encompassing only one tenth of the original 7,000 pages, I can't make any comprehensive comments about his writing.  But in extracting favourite quotations and metaphors  from the chunky 700 page version I read, it...

Thoughts as shells

The thoughts of poets likened to two types of shell, those that come from the depths and those that are washed up on shore and so exposed to the elements.  Thoreau has numerous comments on the nature of poets and poetry - I will be citing a number, even where I'm not...

Towing a sinking ship with a canoe

A clear portrayal of something being unequal to the task, Thoreau uses this maritime metaphor to describe words which strike him as inauthentic, being only half justified or improved by some modifier ('church' made true by calling it 'true church' - he doesn't...

Nature like an athlete

How wonderful to portray nature beefing herself up to wrestle with winter, stripping off all superfluity such as leaves, the better to grapple with cold and frost. 'Nature now, like an athlete, begins to strip herself in earnest for her contest with her great...

Of detonating ideas

Does that ever happen to you?  That an idea detonates over your head, shooting up like a colossal cartoon exclamation mark?  A vivid and unusual way to convey moments of piercing breakthrough. 'But it was in the transept of the cathedral that the notion suddenly took...

As slender as…

An unusual simile for slenderness, applied to an elliptical island in a river. '... an island as slender as a weaver’s shuttle divided the current amidstream.'   Source: Patrick Leigh Fermor, A Time of Gifts: On foot to Constantinople: from the Hook of Holland to...

A winter warmer

Nothing like it, climbing under a meringue-like eiderdown on a freezing winter night, and sleeping off all fatigue. '... an eiderdown like a giant meringue.'   Source: Patrick Leigh Fermor, A Time of Gifts: On foot to Constantinople: from the Hook of Holland to...

As purposefully as pikes

'Cutters of the river police smacking from wave to wave as purposefully and fast as pikes.  Once we gave way to a liner that towered out of the water like a festive block of flats.'   Source: Patrick Leigh Fermor, A Time of Gifts: On foot to Constantinople: from...

The astonishing sound of Magyar

Having just returned from Budapest, I was happy to rediscover this galloping description of the way it can sound to a foreign - or at least English - ear, with its agreeing vowels and harmonies.  And he's captured the rhythm perfectly - that 'dactylic canter' that...

Books lost and gained

In Leigh Fermor's enchanting walk across Europe, he find islands of great hospitality where he can rest and recuperate from intermittently roughing it.  Remote aristocratic homes which he intimates were often destroyed in the maelstrom of the war that was to engulf...

The loss of a journal

How many notebooks, journals or letters have been swept away by circumstance, carrying the minutiae of memory with them? Leigh Fermor used his to reconstruct his travels in his books and he clearly never got over this loss. Elsewhere he mentions a journal having been...

An unfolding plan

How do you convey the speed and completeness of a fast unfolding plan?  I enjoyed this image of a Japanese paper flower in a glass of water unfurling its petals with ease and precision. May all your plans unfold so. 'A plan unfolded with the speed and the completeness...

A curse in its Sunday best

May you be spared any such presence and any such curse.  Great phrasing though. 'His presence was both funereal and incandescent, like a curse dressed in its Sunday best.'   Source: Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Shadow of the Wind, trans. Lucia Graves (London: Phoenix,...

Skeleton fists and black commas

This perfectly captures the gnarliness of old vines and I like the black commas contrasting against the snow-white backdrop. 'Pruned to the bone, the dark vine-shoots stuck out of the snow in rows of skeleton fists which shrank to quincunxes of black commas along the...

Truer than …

Reading the book in Barcelona, this phrase resonated as I'd discovered the simple snack you can order alongside your drink or tapas - tomato spread on white bread, pan con tomate.  Sounds boring but it's just delicious. '... what I say is truer than a slice of bread...

As bright as …

Fermín is one of the most eccentric and believable characters in The Shadow of the Wind.  He has a rollicking command of language, making his arguments compelling as much for wit as substance. In an atmosphere charged with propaganda, 'as bright as a political mural'...

As natural as…

If someone said 'as natural as...' what would pop into your mind?  'Tap water' seems unusual, but when we are being encouraged to drink tap water rather than commercially bottled water, it can seem the more 'natural' option. '... as natural as tap water.'  ...

As white as …

Probably the liveliest simile for whiteness I've come across, though I have highlighted others, less earthy. 'Daniel, you're as white as a nun's buttock.  Are you all right?'   Source: Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Shadow of the Wind, trans. Lucia Graves (London:...

As weighty as …

A refreshing change from references to lead and other heavy materials, I liked this silence as weighty as the Swiss franc. 'Tomás and I were left alone, enveloped in a silence as weighty as the Swiss franc.'   Source: Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Shadow of the Wind,...

Killing flies in midair

Memorably describing the oratory of one of several colourful, eloquent characters in Ruiz Zafón's The Shadow of the Wind, a book I read in Barcelona, the city where it takes place.  It was a pleasure to map the mystery's unfolding in real streets, while savouring some...

Dawn as liquid copper

I can see that bright and rosy metallic light glancing along a morning street, making it hard to discern more than the passing shadows of people. '... we walked through the streets of a Barcelona trapped beneath ashen skies as dawn poured over Rambla de Santa Mónica...

An accent thick enough to…

Bernarda is a wonderful housekeeper to the protagonists and when they employ a tramp to work in their bookshop, he falls in love with her. The courtship is part of the beauty of the book.  I like the notion of something being 'thick enough to spread on toast'....

Another context, another grin

Having recently found a seashore's surf likened to a grin, I was struck by the keyboard version, like a piano with a personality such as you might see in a cartoon. 'The piano keyboard displayed its endless grin.'   Source: Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Shadow of the...

Spring cleaning your burrow

If you read Sea Room, you will fall in love with puffins, utterly endearing, quirky birds.  Here Nicolson describes their appearance after the annual return to their burrows.  They never change burrow and the spring cleaning is done by both parties in the lifelong...

Waiting for the pub to open

Puffins are curious and unafraid of humans, and very sociable among themselves. I loved this image of their crowding around your boat, like drinkers hovering at the pub door. 'You can take your boat in among them.  They scatter to start with, but then slowly seep back...

Puffin as scientist

The way Nicolson describes puffins makes you wonder if their name comes from 'puffed up' or 'puffed out', as there's always a sense of their parading about inspecting things, and just a touch of pomposity.  Here, their examination of a rope reminds him of a biologist...

The proprieties of the puffin

Sociable and lovable, puffins have elaborate rituals, like chaps gathered around a fireplace to smoke postprandial cigars in 1908. 'Ludicrous and lovable puffins!  Their sociability is as stiff and predictable as an evening in an Edwardian London.  Gestures of...

Skeins of geese sewn into the air

Two ways to describe the habitual, seasonal flight paths of geese: a skein woven into the air like stitches, which in turn form creases in the palm of the world's hand. 'From a satellite you could see them, long skeins of the goose bodies, sewn like stitches into the...

Eggs like a Jackson Pollock

Are puffin eggs like a Jackson Pollock, or did Jackson Pollock find some inspiration in the designs of eggs? We recently spent five hours walking around the Art Institute in Chicago, and couldn't help wondering if Picasso hadn't taken some inspiration and ideas from...

Of storms and carwashes

A carwash captures the all-sloshing, soaking, random, bucketing wetness of a strong storm. 'An Atlantic storm was slashing around us like a carwash...' Source: Adam Nicolson, Sea Room: An Island Life (London: Harper Collins, 2013 (2002)), p. 204

The smiling surf

You can see the white froth of the waves on a rough northern shore, looking like a white grin along a curved beach. '... a grin of surf lined the northern shores.' Source: Adam Nicolson, Sea Room: An Island Life (London: Harper Collins, 2013 (2002)), p....

As seamless and faceless as…

What could be more seamless and faceless than a U-boat surfacing and submerging, grey and impersonal?  Apologies to all naval buffs for choosing a photo of a submarine that isn't a U-boat in the historic sense. 'A Minke whale slid its long black back above the surface...

Glittering as though sugared

Ah yes, that's how it looks when you have those dancing sparkles on the sea's surface.  I like the extension to a 'frost of beneficence', like the frosting on a birthday cake. 'The water lay glittering around the boat as though sugared, a frost of beneficence across...

Lichen like cracked lacquer

I imagine here the wetted orange lichen that grows flat on rocky surfaces, like tiny star-bursts of gold. 'The lichen glows like cracked lacquer on the cliffs.'   Source: Adam Nicolson, Sea Room: An Island Life (London: Harper Collins, 2013 (2002)), p. 131 Photo...

Blue as deep as…

It seems some newborns have blue eyes even if later they take on other hues.  Colour is one of the most slippery elements to describe, so I like this reference and had fun choosing the photo. 'A blueness as deep as a new-born eye.'   Source: Adam Nicolson, Sea...

As wriggly as…

Such a friendly word for a sinuous path, and so the likening to a piece of thread fallen on a carpet carries home. 'The path is as wriggly as a thread fallen on carpet.'   Source: Adam Nicolson, Sea Room: An Island Life (London: Harper Collins, 2013 (2002)), p....

Intimate with hugeness

A wonderful way to describe bobbing on the sea close to the sheer cliffs of the islands, and edging towards still, alien, unembraceable bodies.  And that perfect phrase, 'intimate with hugeness'. 'Afloat on the ink of the green sea, it is like being in the elephant...

As subtle as scent

A simple simile.  While some scents are not subtle, my husband's endeavours to teach me the mysteries of wine aromas shows me how subtle they can be.  Even when not entirely elusive, they are hard to identify.  This scented simile is used to describe a delicate but...

Puffins on a dance floor

By the time you finish reading Sea Room, you may or may not have fallen in love with the Shiant Isles, but you will surely have fallen in love with their principal inhabitants, a quarter of a million puffins.  Curious, loveable, sociable creatures.  How appropriate to...

The influence of place

Few writers I know address the meaning of place better than Adam Nicolson, particularly in terms of rootedness or attraction to specific places and landscapes.   In Sea Room he explores his own passionate attachment to three outwardly barren, uninhabited and even...

As known to me as…

Two in one here, both unfamiliar ways of describing something familiar.  Wood knots, if you live with them, do become known to you - I am getting to know those on our ceiling.  The feeling of your teeth to your tongue is so familiar that I had never even thought about...

As pale as…

This simile pleases me because I have an attachment to the colours used in eighteenth century interiors, and the kind of names given to those hues by paint companies and others.  Here I imagine a dove-grey-white shade, with perhaps a touch of duck-egg blue. '… a sky...

On wobbling and inflating rhetoric

An unusual way to describe rhetoric, but apt given that the islands Nicolson is writing about could be home to seals.  You can imagine the elephant seal pontificating in front of a board of Commissioners. 'His rhetoric inflating and wobbling like the proboscis of an...

The friskiness of a cow on a sunny day

While I couldn't find a good picture of either a leaping labourer or a friskily jumping cow on a sunny day, I wanted to share this quirky likeness.  May you leap and jump with joy, in any case. 'Pleasant to see the labourer on Sunday jump with the friskiness of a cow...

Dancing leaves

They do spin and pirouette in a gusty autumn breeze, and I liked this reference to a rag blown in the wind. 'One only leaf upon the top of a tree - the sole remaining leaf - danced round and round like a rag blown in the wind.'  7 March 1798 Source: Dorothy...

Bristled serpents of ivy

A perfect description of those thick cords of ivy rope that wrap themselves around trees, eventually suffocating them. 'The ivy twisting round the oaks like bristled serpents.'  22nd January 1798 Source: Dorothy Wordsworth, The Grasmere and Alfoxden Journals, ed. and...

The brimming basin of the sea

When I read this description of the sea I thought immediately of the photo you see featured here, which I found a few months ago.  I also like the inclusiveness of Dorothy's descriptions - the vast majesty of the sea alongside the friendly green of the humble turnip....

She is as in a field a silken tent

To celebrate World Poetry Day, I have chosen poems which are built on a metaphor. This one by Robert Frost, which I long ago committed to memory, describes a woman as a silken tent in a field. The language is silky and sibilant, conveying the susurration of a breeze...

Love and thought

This beautiful, measured poem by Michael Drayton (1563-1631), poet laureate, was written the night before he died to the woman he had loved since childhood but with whom marriage had been socially impossible. It has two metaphors: in the first, love is like seed cast...

Spinning your way home

Here E.B. White (1899-1985) writes a poem in a letter to Katherine, depicting a spider's spinning a thread-ladder to find its way back, as he will find his way back to her. Source: E.B. White, letter to Katherine from King Edward Hotel, Toronto Photo credit: Erwan...

A hive of healing

A beautiful metaphor of a hive of bees working inside the heart to transmute ancient heartaches to the gold of honey. Surely a device to think of if you are trying to free yourself of lingering sorrows. It may be the illusion of a dream but its effects could prove...

As distinct as…

I like this geometric juxtaposition, though I might have made the distinction sharper: as distinct as circle and square?  As distinct as line and circle? 'Distinct as polygon and square.' Source: Christopher Logue, War Music: An account of Books 1-4 and 16-19 of...

The icy scabs of the earth

A depiction of the north and south ice caps, as 'icy scabs at either end of the earth'.  And then having them wince in their sleep as Achilles' distant scream reaches them from its middling latitude.   'He lifts his face to 90; draws his breath; And from the...

Round as…

Round as a moon isn't surprising, but the addition of the spring, makes it richer and fuller and a more resonant metaphor. 'His shield as round and rich as moons in spring.'   Source: Christopher Logue, War Music: An account of Books 1-4 and 16-19 of Homer’s...

Quiet in quiet rooms

A simple movement, settling back against a rope, evoking entire lives spent leaning into comfort and quiet, disengaging from din and adventure. 'Elsewhere late afternoon goes lazily enough. And yawning as he leaves his tent To sigh and settle back against a rope (As...

Fallen pieces of the moon

A haunting way to think of icebergs, moon-pieces fallen from the sky.  Especially when lit at night by their mother-ship's beams. 'Icebergs … fallen pieces of the moon.'   Source: Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams, 206 Photo credit: pixabay.com -...

Ice-crushed

In this description of a 250 ton ship being crushed by the unforgiving shift and grind of pack ice, you can hear the split of trunk-thick timbers, snapping and rending like matchsticks. ‘Like a grand piano caught in an industrial press’. Source: Barry Lopez, Arctic...

As curious, as dangerous as…

It's a long time, probably decades, since I had a nightmare, but I remember having quite a few in childhood, and danger was a recurring theme, often waking me with a jolt when it was about to strike. 'As curious and dangerous as nightmares.' Source: Barry Lopez,...

As voluptuous as…

I like the double surprise of this one.  I wouldn't easily associate clouds with fruit, nor 'voluptuous', though cumulus clouds can be plumply Rubenesque. Now, which summer fruits qualify as 'voluptuous'?  Berries, no, they are too astringent and contained.  It would...

Close as …

If you can withstand the shock of the thock of the arrow passing through eyes, the simile ‘as close as a layer of paint’ could be used in less violent contexts.  Logue is a master metaphorist. ‘Arrows that thock, that enter eyes, that pass Close as a layer of paint …’...

Seen through water

The impact of Gray’s sword causing it to bend in the air as it would appear to bend if submerged and refracted in water.  What an image! ‘Gray’s sword Bent as if seen through water…’ Source: Christopher Logue, War Music: An account of Books 1-4 and 16-19 of Homer’s...

Like sun on tin

Logue is recreating the Bronze Age and in his version of the Iliad, metal gleams. 'Eyelight like sun on tin.'   Source: Christopher Logue, War Music: An account of Books 1-4 and 16-19 of Homer’s Iliad, London: Faber and Faber, 2001, p. 173 Photo credit:...

As timid as…

A memorable and graphic (if unsympathetic) way to convey timidity and fearfulness. You can see a cowering dog, skitting about with his tail between his legs, looking for a quiet spot. And yes, I drew the line at providing an image for this one. ‘As timid and fearful...

A mess of broken eggs

An arresting image for catastrophe – an omelette.  Too prosaic?  Smashing eggs can certainly make a hell of a mess, but I keep questioning this, somehow an omelette doesn’t equate to ‘catastrophe’. But nor can I forget it. ‘The omelette of catastrophe’ Source: Osip...

A timeless calm

I loved this one.  Something about Tatar children bathing horses in Alushta that conveys a secure, happy world and an activity repeated over generations.  I hope I can be calm like those Tatar children. And how did the idea come to Mandelstam?  Did he see these...

Serenade in fur coat

Had to read this one a couple of times – it’s imaginative and convoluted.  First the image of ‘the body heat of your vision’ and then that tumbling phrase, ‘singing a serenade in a fur coat behind a double set of windows’.  I hope it never happens to you. ‘Standing...

Milky metaphors

Milky quietude sounds like something to be welcomed, whereas a curdling whey of silence is to be escaped.  I like this double latte metaphor, turning over two sides of quietness. ‘A milky quietude ensued.  The whey of silence curdled.’ Source: Osip Mandelstam, Journey...

Conversation as coffee

Likening conversation to ‘thick black coffee’ which you might have on the table in front of you, and you might stir with a small spoon while enjoying the thick black coffee of talk.  I imagine a smoke-filled waterfront café, with only the low hum of friendly exchange,...

Authenticity as iron

Authenticity as something to be cherished in itself will come into its own in a world apparently awash with fake news and other flavours of fakeness. It’s a curious quality, hard to pin down, but you just know it when you see it. In writing, a word or a phrase can...

As simple as…

A simile that deserves to enter daily use.  But was Newton’s thought simple?  Yes and no… ‘… as simple as the thought of Newton…’ Source: Vasily Grossman, An Armenian Sketchbook, trans. Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, New York: New York Review Books, 2013, p. 82 Photo...

Bright eyes like glass grapes

‘Bright eyes’ implies a warm, sparkling, engaging personality until you slam up against ‘rather like glass grapes’, and then you move into something vacuous and apart. I happen to like the miles-away half-mad gaze with which sheep and goats stare at you, but more...

Flailing blades and razored vanes

This reminds me of pictures of ancient war chariots in children’s history books, with blades poking out of the wheel hubs.   Here it is the warriors that are flailing blades, an image rendering soldiers as engines of killing.   The piston-kneed, blade-flailing...

As fast as…

You can see the greased lightening serpent-slither whiplash-speed over slippery tiles. Fast as a viper over bathroom tiles, Into the yellow bay.   Source: Christopher Logue, War Music, London: Faber and Faber, 2001, p. 172 Photo credit: xuuxuu,...

Like sardine from a tin

This horrifyingly vivid image is made more painful by its casual tone, with a boy likened to a sardine.   They passed so close that hub skinned hub. Ahead, Patroclus braked a shade, and then, As gracefully as men in oilskins cast Fake insects over trout, he...

Images of war

Again, reducing human carnage to an image of barbecue leftovers. Bronze glows vaguely, and bones show like pink drumsticks.   Source: Christopher Logue, War Music, London: Faber and Faber, 2001, p. 158

A butterfly in a cactus library

Such an imaginative construct to describe a jagged script!  I had fun looking for an image of a cabbage-looking butterfly flitting around a spiky plant.  And in case you aren’t sure what ‘Japhetic’ means, I have copied the wikipedia definition below. Bear in mind that...

Beware the squinting lump

Of all the dead-end sounding places, I can’t think of a description that’s more likely to deter you from visiting.   ‘The end of the street, as if crushed by a pair of binoculars, swerved off into a squinting lump.’   Source: Osip Mandelstam, Journey to...

Swift as a telegram

This simile for swiftness drawing on an age in which telegram were one of the fastest forms of communication.  Also like the image of the yacht slicing the water as sharply as a lancet.   ‘An American yacht, swift as a telegram, that cut the water like a lancet.’...

Solti’s stick

In a tick, you are taken from ancient Troy to a contemporary concert hall, and the magical, electrifying instant when a great conductor poises before bringing down his baton to release an opening note.  Now you know what Troy felt like. The drawing, I realise, looks...

Sunlight like birds

This conveys the distant wink and sparkle of sun glancing off a choppy sea surface and appearing, at a distance, like a lather of birds.   ‘First sunlight off the sea like thousands of white birds.’   Source: Christopher Logue, War Music: An account of Books...

Shields like clinkered hulls

A marvelous description of the helots’ tightly held, flexible and impregnable shield wall, like the scales of a fish, or here, as the strakes of a ship’s hull, hermetically sealed with caulking.   ‘The columns tightened. The rim of each man’s shield Overlapped...

As happy as …

In developing WritingRedux.com, I’ve been experimenting with revolutionizing the quality of quotations you find on postcards and greetings cards, and testing out these ideas using the UK printing company moo.com.  They have a marvelous technology – Printfinity – that...

The ground beneath your feet…

Having just re-read a beloved book about the Arctic, this resonates. The fear, loneliness and disorientation of a young girl whose world has been capsized is summed up in a chunk of shore breaking away and drifting out to sea like a piece of ice. ‘It was as if the...

Community as lake

Something in this metaphor suggests a community which has great resilience and a certain timelessness, although it could also imply a place that doesn’t change either for better or worse because no traveller passing through leaves any impression. ‘The people of those...

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